Tom Russell’s The Rose of Roscrae is the final album in a trilogy that began back in 1998 with The Man from God Knows Where. That recording explored his family’s origins in Norway, Ireland, and the American West. He followed it with 2005’s Hotwalker, which looked deeply at post-WWII American culture and mythologized sometimes marginal figures from the worlds of art, film, literature, and more.
For Russell, no myth is larger than life; it is life itself. The Rose of Roscrae, is a sprawling folk opera, or Western musical, complete with libretto — Russell is ambivalent about defining it. Over two discs and 52 selections (many narrated, most sung), Russell delivers an epic that moves from Ireland and Texas, the Plains, California and Mexico to Canada, prisons in the deep South, carnival shows, and all the way back. His cast is equally large: Maura O’Connell, Joe Ely, Dave Olney, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Gretchen Peters, Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmy LaFave, Augie Meyers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ian Tyson, and dozens more. Further, along with his own songs, Russell licensed others, plus field recordings with the voices of Johnny Cash, Lead Belly, John Trudell, Walt Whitman, Tex Ritter, and more, adding depth and weight. Real and fictional characters are hard-stitched into his seamless narrative. Part of his story is inspired by his sister-in-law, who ranched a 3,000 acre spread in California after being abandoned by his brother, a cowboy. The story’s “hero” is Johnny Dutton, reflecting back on his 95 years. He recounts his tale of being a teenager in love with Rose Malloy in County Tipperary, Ireland in the 1880s. After a savage beating by her father, he flees across the Atlantic, becomes a cowboy, and then an outlaw: Johnny Behind-The-Deuce. He writes to Rose and lures her to America. They marry but he later abandons her after being encouraged by his cousin, Joseph Dutton — who has his own redemption later in the story — to return to the wild life. The journey is Homeric. Characters such as Joseph Dutton and the mystical priest Father Demian — who runs a leper colony on Molokai — are historical figures. Disc two is from Rose’s perspective sung by O’Connell. She’d married Johnny, been abandoned, ranched alone, seen him return, run him off, moved back to Ireland, and returned his letters unopened when he continued to pursue her. Her perspective on love reveals the stark difference about love between women and men. The pair end up together, but as friends, sharing the weight and wonder of life during a remarkable period in history, with all of its hardscrabble, spiritual mystery. And the music? Folk, rock, country, the Norwegian Wind Ensemble’s Copland-esque serial moments, Celtic, and much more. It’s panoramic, theatrical, and gloriously excessive.
But Russell keeps his focus on Rose of Roscrae; it’s soulful and moving for its reach; it doesn’t need the libretto to be enjoyed, or even to blow your mind. Russell’s view of history may be romantic but it is also gritty as hell, and enduring. This is his masterpiece.